Subject matter experts will play a big part in the future of brand journalism

Posted on October 23, 2012 4:30 pm by | Content | Brands | Business | Media | Social Media

NewspapermanTraditionally, journalists work to become experts on the subjects they cover. Political reporters don’t start as legislators or government employees, for example. They start as journalists and learn to cover the political beat. General assignment reporters become instant experts on every topic they cover, learning enough to report accurately so that lay readers will understand. Learning how to learn in this way was, for me, one of the most valuable benefits of getting a degree in journalism.

A lot of reporters who were trained to practice journalism for a living have moved into brand journalism. As companies’ ability to tell their stories through mainstream media channels has diminished—along with mainstream media’s reach—the ranks of freelance reporters has swelled. Companies that have figured out that they must become their own publishers have been recruiting them. Some high-powered writers for publications like The Wall Street Journal are now freelancing for companies like Cisco, while other organizations, like Intel, have hired journalists to crank out content.

The practice of hiring journalists to produce brand journalism has resulted in some very good material. It’s not the future, though. Brand journalism will eventually belong to the subject matter experts (SMEs) already working inside an organization. Rather than hire writers to report on what staff are doing, companies will train staff to write it themselves.

A number of factors underlie this inevitable evolution of brand journalism:

  • Anybody can publish these days, and a lot of SMEs have taken to blogs, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other channels to express their views and tell their stories.
  • The public trusts a company’s SMEs more than other internal sources, including CEOs and official spokespersons. Edelman’s most recent Trust Barometer has ranked “technical expert inside the company” as the most credible internal spokesperson for the last few years, and the degree of trust just keeps rising. In 2011, it was 64 percent. This year it’s 66 percent.
  • Even just a plain old “regular employee” is trusted more than the CEO. Trust in CEOs dropped 12 points in 2012, the single biggest decline in the Barometer’s history. Meanwhile, a regular employee rose 16 percent, the biggest increase since the 2004 study.

But the biggest factor could be a seismic shift in the very nature of journalism. As the pool of full-time journalism gigs contracts, professional writers are seeking new revenue opportunities. There’s freelancing (which provides some income to the impressive roster writing for Cisco). There are alternative journalism endeavors, like BuzzFeed, ProPublica and the like. Some are trying to make a go of it with blogging. Even Rick Redfern, Gary Trudeau’s laid-off Washington Post reporter in the comic strip Doonesbury, is reduced to blogging for The Huffington Post for free in hopes that the exposure will lead to paying work.

Rick Redfern, HuffPo blogger

Journalism schools have been in a quandry about their role. What used to be a no-brainer—prepare aspiring journalists to work for newspapers and electronic media (that is, TV and radio)—has become uncertain. Several experiments are underway. The Neiman Journalism Lab has explored a variety of ideas, like teaching journalists the same way doctors are taught (in teaching hospitals). But a Neiman piece from the University of Toronto’s Robert Steiner outlines what could well become a large part of journalism’s future. Steiner—director of the Fellowships in Global Journalism program at the university’s Munk School of Global Affairs—writes…

Our Fellowship in Global Journalism deliberately recruits subject-matter experts — academics and professionals — and teaches them to break news in their own disciplines for media around the world. Like medical students, our Fellows spend only a couple of hours a day in class. They spend most of their time working their own beats as stringers for major media; those are our so-called teaching hospitals.

The program, Steiner says, is working. The same approach may be even more applicable to brand journalism.

Some companies have been at this for a while, even if they haven’t thought of it this way. Posts on Southwest Airlines’ blog are authored by 30 volunteer employees who work in a broad range of jobs, from a pilot to a meteorologist, from an inflight safety manager to a network technology planner. At Indium Corporation, a business-to-business operation specializing in solder flux and related products and services, posts are written under the label, “From One Engineer to Another” by product managers, support specialists, engineers and salespeople.

Of course, while some SMEs are also natural-born writers, others are…well…less gifted. That’s where the training comes in. Steiner writes that it took only two weeks in the journalism bootcamp for the Fellows to start thinking like journalists. “Their story ideas make me sit up, and they have an early flair for interviewing. They’re also feeling all the anxieties about accuracy and deadlines that plague the rest of us.”

Offering lab-based journalism training to SMEs will ensure your organization can produce a steady stream of interesting, relevant content. Companies will also have to ensure that producing that content is written into employees’ job descriptions so it becomes part of their work rather than an extracurricular activity.

It’s important to understand that SMEs-as-brand-journalists is part of the future. Great writers will always have value and companies will always be able to use them. But the idea of hiring writers to write about areas of expertise that are alien to them makes a lot less sense than teaching people who are already experts how to write well. The current crop of Fellows at the University of Toronto include two professors, three PhDs, a lawyer, a former advertising executive, a former development aid professional, an architectural designer, and a Middle East expert, according to Steiner.

That sounds for all the world like the kinds of people companies employ. Teach them to report and you will be poised for the new shape of brand journalism.



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